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Bechtel’s Impact Report

Building sustainable, high-performance data centers – a conversation with Jim Connaughton, CEO of Nautilus

  • By
    portrait of Peter Nelson
    Peter Nelson, Director of Infrastructure Development at Bechtel Enterprises
  • 07 June 2021
     9 Min Read

Peter Nelson, Director of Infrastructure Development at Bechtel Enterprises, sat down with Jim Connaughton, CEO of Nautilus Data Technologies, to talk about our new partnership to build sustainable data centers together.

The partnership will help meet global data center needs with energy-efficient and water-conserving facilities which use 70% less power for cooling and eliminate the consumption of drinking water. The partnership will help to transform the environmental footprint of the data center sector and to close the digital divide by deploying to cities, rural communities, and developing economies around the world. 

Listen to the podcast.

Read more about our partnership to build more sustainable data centers with Nautilus.


Podcast transcript

Interviewee: Jim Connaughton (JC)
Interviewer: Peter Nelson (PN)

PN: Hello, I'm Peter Nelson. I lead the infrastructure development group at Bechtel Enterprises and today I'm delighted to be joined by Jim Connaughton, the CEO of Nautilus Data Technologies. Nautilus is Bechtel’s newest partner in Global Data Center Development. Welcome Jim. Thanks for taking the time to talk with us today.

JC: Thanks Peter. It's a big day for Nautilus and a big day for Bechtel. Really excited about our partnership.

PN: Thanks for that. Well, perhaps to begin and for those listeners that are less familiar with the data center industry, could you outline some of the industry's major trends and challenges that they're facing?

JC: Well, as we've all experienced from COVID, we've now seen deeply how digitally dependent the world is, you know, digital communication exchanges is as vita today as provision of clean drinking water or access to power, and what we see in the sector then is a deep dependence than on the infrastructure to make all of that possible. And of course, data centers matter in all of that. We're moving our computers out from our offices out from our homes and put in these big warehouses. And those warehouses have to do three things, they have to support a significant amount of computing, so these big computers, which are increasingly getting faster and hotter. The data centers have to operate much more sustainably. They consume a lot of resources, which we can talk about, and so we have to find a better path to this growing infrastructure. And third, and perhaps, most importantly, we have to close the digital divide. In the developed world we have a lot of access to this new technology and this new infrastructure, but much of the rest of the world does not have it yet. So if we can deliver better technology, more sustainably, to more people then we've really solved the global equation.

PN: I see that that's great. If we were to revisit that through Nautilus's lens, you know he talked about high power computing and the trends there and sustainability, and the digital divide, how does that translate to what Nautilus is bringing to the market and offering here?

JC: For all three items, we need to take a hard look at the infrastructure. So, let’s take the first item, the first is where we’re heading, high performance computing. So just think about more powerful computers. We all trade out our laptops and home computers from time to time to get a better, faster one but it turns out that better and faster comes hotter. And when you put those in data centers, you need a much more powerful air conditioning system, and that powerful air conditioning system is not very sustainable and it's not very effective. And in fact, as the new computers get even faster, and a little warmer, air conditioning just won’t work anymore. So, we need to find a new pathway just out of air conditioning to meet high performance computing requirements.

Secondly, on the sustainability loop, it's the mirror image of the same equation, which is air conditioning uses a lot of resources and so we need to find a new pathway to reduce the environmental footprint of data centers and that will make data centers more affordable, more reliable, and more reliable, to close the digital divide. So, these are the three challenges that we can now work our way through.

PN: That’s great and as I know as we’ve been talking, our teams have worked together on potential projects. We've seen a lot of what Nautilus is doing here and it strikes us as really quite unique. Maybe could you talk about some of the special ways that you're going about solving these problems?

JC: So what we did at Nautilus, we said, wait, if we have to rethink this. What’s a better way to cool computers? So, we went back to the future which is let's go ahead and see if we can take naturally cold water out of large natural water bodies and use that to cool the computers instead of doing a lot of complex engineering and management to cool the computers using air conditioning.

So that's the core of what we've done and when you do that, it means we can cool and bring naturally cold water right into the data hall through a series of heat exchangers, we borrow it from the sea or from a lake or from a large river, and we simply transfer the coldness to the back of the computers and cool them off that way, and so it's simple. It's actually relatively easy to do. It's just that the data center sector has never done it before.

In fact, it's the way all other sectors cool themselves. So, Bechtel has deep experience with thermal power plants, Bechtel's has deep experience putting up large industrial facilities. In fact, Bechtel had deep experience, you know, with water treatment facilities and the like. All of these big pieces of infrastructure that generate heat. They use this technique. They take naturally cold water to cool themselves, and they've been doing it for over 100 years.

PN: It’s always quite, there’s a lightbulb moment for me when you showed me this technology and how effective it can be, and that it hadn’t been applied yet. It seems like an obvious switch that could be made. What was really interesting for me was that, people are often in the dark about just how much power and just how much water it takes to run these data centers and run our digital lives. And it always strikes me that, really the kind of energy and the carbon footprint of the data center world - which is rapidly growing - is on a par with the pre-COVID airline industry. I mean, it's really, it's really up there, and it's not showing any signs of slowing down. So, I think solutions like yours are really well placed to be future proof the kind of march of AI and high performance computing which, going back to your point about the digital divide, data centers can be deployed in more places. There are places that have scarce water supplies and less available power to run these facilities.

JC: Well, we've tried as a startup to focus first on introducing the technology to high demand regions. So around the world today there are 15 to 20 global hubs and this is where all of our data exchanges. So, we're having this conversation now, but it's running through one of these global hubs, and so it's places like Northern California, like Singapore, like London. But there are other locations as well.

Ireland as it turns out, is one of the global hubs and we have a project that we're going to take all of the learnings from our first project in Stockton and apply them to an even more effective, more effective, more sustainable design on a floating barge. And do that in a community in the West of Ireland that is very similar to Stockton, and we're going to help reduce the footprint of data centers that currently sit around Dublin and move westward in Ireland and provide the opportunity to have dramatic expansion of data center infrastructure that will serve not just the needs of Irish business but serve the needs of the globe, which is really quite exciting.

In addition, we have a project that's unfolding now in Maine, and that's a particularly exciting project because that will end up being the greenest data center in the world because we'll be using hydropower to provide electricity to the facility. So, zero emission electrons, and we're actually going to be able to use the hydropower facility and the reservoir that sits above it as the means of bringing cold water to the data center. So, we’ll either eliminate our pumps or dramatically reduce the need for pumps.

PN: Want struck me in our conversations is just that Nautilus’ solution isn't one that's just found anywhere, and by virtue of that we have to bring, each of us have to bring a lot of new things to the table. So it's not just our data center group working on this, it's the water and the cooling and the heat exchange folks and experts. It's the modular construction teams that may have been working on LNG facilities for us. There's all sorts of great teams that are coming together, and of course Nautilus has assembled its own experts to in developing the technology. And it's the confluence of all of that that I think makes this really quite special.

JC: Yeah, I think you're zeroing in on the fact that this is actually a horizontal partnership, although we might naturally think of it as a vertical one. The goal is to deploy data centers, but the methodology is taking advantage of our effort over the last many years to perfect this approach. To make 10,000 decisions to reduce it to, you know, 200/ 300 hundred design points and then working with. So that's just the design piece of this horizontal effort. But then, in terms of when you think about deployment, deployment depends on the expertise of Bechtel. Who's used to building large industrial systems, managing large water handling systems, knows how to work at the shoreline. Whether you're onshore or offshore, and knows how to deliver knows how to deliver through your EPC processes, everywhere in the world. So that's something Nautilus can't do. We would never take it upon ourselves to do. It's why we have a partner in Bechtel, to help us achieve that globally.

PN: I think there's a lot of threads that we can pull together, and I think it's that integration that's really exciting to me about Nautilus. Especially since we're able to start at the very earliest stages of the projects. In development, with Bechtel Enterprises, going through how we establish the sites, select the sites, optimize them, figure out the financing, and then move on to the EPC project and beyond. So that part is very exciting to me.

Well, Jim, thank you so much for talking with us today and thanks for also for your team for working with us today. We look forward to the future and can't wait to have you back again for another chat.

JC: Thanks so much Peter, a real pleasure.

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